Thursday, January 21, 2021

So...What Can I Do? (ALL of us need to begin asking...)

 Am I glad he’s gone? Of course I am. 

Do I feel a rising sense of hope because of yesterday’s Inauguration and a clear emergence of a federal administration bent on transparency and truth, a strengthening of institutions undervalued by the previous administration? Yes, I do.

Do I look forward to the inevitable return to ‘business as usual’ in our nation’s capital, covered by a media whose ratings depend upon fear, conflict and discord? No, I don’t. I don’t pretend to know how our media-culture needs to recalculate its own algorithms for “success” in a market-driven capitalistic economy in such a way to prevent (or at least not provoke) divisiveness/polarization. And I’m not naive enough to imagine that yesterday’s pomp&circumstance truly redresses the work that is in front of us as citizens of the USA. Part of the hope above is that those who have signed onto public service at this challenging time aren’t naive--or inexperienced--either. 

So what can I do? How am I to be a part of stepping into our past and listening for its repair? (nod to readback line from Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb”).

I found myself musing on a well-worn conundrum in my life as I was driving home from CrossFit this morning: the invitation to change in the face of holding-onto-what-is. How does someone become a liberal or progressive, born into a conservative family? Is the journey different if they are born into a progressively oriented family? How does someone become a conservative or traditionalist if they are born into a more liberal or progressively oriented family? Different if born into a conservative family? What, if anything, instigates inner transformation in you--perhaps a change of views, or of party--in our political milieux--today, or ‘back then’? 

My grounding assumption here is that all of us need to consider our own inner transformations in any reconsideration of citizenship. It’s not just “the losing party” that needs to “catch up to the times.” That’s a polarizing habit of mind/assumption, winners/losers, etc. It’s only a matter of time before ‘the party in power’ becomes ‘the party no longer in power’ anyway. A unifying question would be: What is my own path of inner transformation, for the good of the Whole? It signals individual promise, honoring of a collective larger than the “I”, and interdependence. Today, no one can avoid this question--except those resisting growth and change, which I know is most of us as of yet. But it needs to be asked as a question without shame or blame. It needs to alter how we listen/see/feel, so the fear-triggers don’t live in the same places that the media knows to goad. 

What will be my own path of inner transformation in this next year, for the good of the Whole?

The two elements underneath all these questions, seems to me, are resistance/refusal and unresolved grief that acts out in distinct but different ways in each of us. If you were overcome with joy and relief yesterday (like I was), cherish it. Enjoy it for as long as seems right and honorable. Then, when an edginess or an antsyness begins to arise, ask yourself the question above. To then live into the question in realtime, ask yourself What am I resisting/refusing right now? Or who am I resisting/refusing, and why? Perhaps related, perhaps not, then, “Where is the sadness in me? Or what touches my anger, even my rage?” This second one is harder to get inside, particularly if it feels so good to finally not feel sadness or anger. 

If you decided not to participate in anything about Inauguration Day at all, then I bow to that choice and the unknown (to me) reasons behind it. Stand in that necessary-space that our free country offers all of us, for as long as it seems right and honorable. Then, when space opens, or an antsyness begins to arise, ask yourself the same question: What will be my own path of inner transformation in this next year, for the good of the Whole? What am I resisting or refusing, and why? Or who? Where is the sadness or anger in me? 

For us to reconsider citizenship in a healthy way, and for us to begin to change the toxic soil we’ve created that is American politics today, we need to shift the frame toward “the Whole,” and we need a new mantra that honors and does not judge. So, be honest with yourself, for where you live/land/love. Who do you include in your Whole? Those you can see around you? Your economic situation--business owner, teacher, entrepreneur, health provider, service-professional, factory-worker? Those with your own skin color, who look like you? Who do you include in your Whole? I saw a t-shirt the other day that made me smile, “The GPS coordinates of your mother’s vagina at the time of your birth do not determine your value as a person.” No matter your sense of “the Whole,” I invite you to stretch it. Expand it. Have your politics be determined by your passion for the human person, anywhere, everywhere.

The new mantra or practice that seems a significant shift of frame too, at least for us local folks) is invitation, not obligation. (This is not to disregard the meta-conversations about accountability and protection/fragility of our democracy right now, in face of white nationalism and bastardized Christianity. This is simply to focus on the local and human in front of us, peeling the political veneers off for a while…). 

For example… Our country’s pressure to celebrate the Biden/Harris administration if you’re a true patriot or to boycott all of yesterday and deny the Biden/Harris administration if you’re a true patriot is a pressure coming from the old, not the new. If we say we are a country of the Free because of the Brave, then each citizen and his/her experience needs honoring and spaces to be legitimate, valid, expressed--as long as it doesn’t drum up militarized or conspiratorial violence, of course.

Translated for me, this means all those Republicans who voted for Trump because their lives have never seemed valued by Democratic administrations and Republican heritage is what they’ve always stood in are justified in boycotting, disregarding, and settling into these next four years, however they may. (As long as it’s without violence in the public sphere). (Part of the sadness and anger in me, of course, is that now writers are beholden to add this descriptive caveat belly hurts when I think of it, and if I don’t let it out gently, I get triggerable and ragey about it…) In a similar vein, all of us who are celebrating and cherishing this movement into our valued norms and institutions? There is invitation to the More, not obligation. Genuine, human collective “soil” can only be nourished with this practice of invitation, not obligation. Which also means non-judgment of others in their own expressions. Direct your energies within, to the ‘you’ you can change.

Eventually, though...with a greater sense of urgency for some of us, lesser for others of us...we need to engage the question of inner transformation, independent of politics, though irreparably intertwined across a complicated political scene of corporate money, national polarization, and media (news/social) algorithms set for fear, unmet desire, and conflict.  

How do we live into our culture’s obsession with fear in a (larger) framework of the Whole, practicing invitation not obligation? Anyone trying to stay current on political events and the state of our world today faces these conscious and unconscious forces of fear-mongering, whether liberal or conservative. How do you become conscious of the fear in your body? What can you try and experiment with, to learn? How may we practice fearlessness in peace, free to stumble and fail with one another? What is the role of the ‘other’ in how you practice? Do you project your fear onto ‘them’? Do you use them ‘to vent’? How might we learn to transfigure it within ourselves before it gets pushed out into the public? 

Perhaps you refuse expanding any sense of the Whole, and you think the mantra is stupid. You think your best bet is avoidance and refusal, focusing on things you can control, actions that confirm your own biases again and again? Avoidance and refusal for a period of time is understandable, even necessary for short periods of time. But as a path of inner transformation for the good of the Whole? Impotent. The Whole can carry a small portion of us who choose this option, but we cannot carry a large percentage that way. Look at the loss and death all around us. Each of us is interconnected to each other… Right now, we have broad swaths of “us” who simply want to resist and refuse the challenges of our day. That is unacceptable for long periods of time, at least if we say we love our country. We are an unfinished country, not a broken one. (again, nod to Amanda Gorman).

And in a broader political culture unable to honor death, loss, failure and the inevitabilities of these things for all of us, we are faced with learning how to grieve, what grief requires (in different cultures, different contexts), what unresolved grief looks like. This of course will look differently, depending upon perception and party affiliation.

Right now, unresolved grief in some of us looks like a cultural triumphalism, a smugness and leering quality to our celebrations or laments. Notice how that could be Democratic or Republican? Liberals sneering right now are part of the country’s wound, not its victors. Republicans refusing any part of the American process right now are part of the country’s wound too.

And this is where my first questions come back into play. Try to imagine the wound our behaviors come from to feel your way toward those whom you see as not-you. Many who have become liberal or progressive began as conservatives or traditionalists. This adds an additional layer of internalized power-abuse, and external triggers. Many have been deeply, spiritually wounded by patriarchal religious traditions. We’ve had our very right to BE HUMAN or to make choices in our own bodies (women) questioned and legislated. We’ve had top-down political forces of mostly white men, often oligarchs in corporate business, brought crashing onto these sensitive wounds, all in attempts to “change us into what mostly-white-men would rather us be.” Many of us have a tender heart for the earth, seeing her raped and pillaged by global business, for material gains that will pass like chaff in the wind in a matter of years. The woundedness of these our American brothers/sisters comes out with weeping, joy, sighs of relief to no longer have to face the serial-womanizer and authoritarian-leader who was in the news every fucking day.

Unresolved grief in others of us may be harder to track...or easier now, in one sense. Conservatives’ woundings are different, though no less grounded in loss and lament. The rate of change in our world today has grown exponentially. Our biological-neurological bodies were not built for processing this much change. Fear and overwhelm are common today. Traditionalists and conservatives see the loss of everything they consider sacred and dependable, their spirituality, institutions, power (yes), family, and human dignity rooted often in self-sufficiency. White male rage is the most obvious, of course. This grief/anger/rage looks like an insurrection and rampage, attempts to hold onto what used to be, in physical aggression that has always seemed to work in world history, at least “for the winners,” who get to write the history books. The propaganda and abuse of patriotic language to motivate and get a mob to conspire toward violence will attempt to mimic truth of ‘years gone by,’ even though all of it is an uncritical grasping at a past that never truly was. (Isn’t it interesting that Trump’s 1776 Report had no historians on it? Hmmmm…anti-intellectual policy-mongering, uncritical and indefensible). More subtly, and more dangerously, this grief may look like complete withdrawal from all public sphere activities, a version of “I’m taking my marbles and going home.” Which I totally get, having done my version of that at different times in my entire adult life. Or perhaps this energy-unresolved grief looks like an uncontrollable fear that seduces human beings into the worst the corporate-or-‘entertainment’ media can spawn--conspiracy theories, religious fanaticism, and militia-run gang-building. 

All of it is pain, unresolved, untended, no longer able to be ignored by as large a population (that has ignored it for decades, some of us would say with regret and humility). So how do we invite this large population of denial-refusal, regardless of party, to become smaller? How can more of us explore a willingness to learn the skills for inner transformation, for the good of the Whole?

Our story gives us our woundedness, which, when tended carefully and with compassion in a container able to hold the journey, becomes a person’s strongest gift for the world.

Imagine the thing you feel most shame about, the thing you’d die if anyone ever found out about? Inner work is facing that shame-fear-wound, ultimately becoming liberated from it so no one can harm you with it, no one can shame you with it. It has no more power over you, and you get to serve from your healed Self, not your fear or reactivities to others. 

Our country’s past is overrun by wounds and opportunities for this journey. When it’s time, when you’re ready, will you step into our past, listening for its repair? We are the only ones who can do this work. You and me. Citizens.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

What I'm Learning in this Round of Impeachment...

What am I learning in this round of Impeachment actions by our House of Representatives, to then be taken up by the Senate next week? A good friend inquired into my views just now...which gives me pause to see what words will come. I will say that my husband and I enjoyed “Impeachment Cocktail Hour” together yesterday, about 5 p.m., after the vote tallied and closed. Whiskey sour for him, Poet’s Dream for me. Tasty and yet a sad clink to the glasses, given the turmoil is just continuing... 

I think the now-second Impeachment of Donald J. Trump IS the right thing for the country whose Legislative Branch has been threatened--politically, and then physically--by the Executive Branch. Impeachment is not the only right thing, however, which is why I want to see what words come here. I’m taking my cue from a good friend’s piece on “Reckoning or reconciliation? Why not both?” A healthy, productive society requires both justice and mercy, both accountability and spaces for grace. It’s not either/or, except in how our media or political pundits try to cover it. Impeachment is the right next thing, but not the only next right thing.

Our democracy is as fragile as I’ve known it in my lifetime, which is not surprising given the timbre and tones of the world in a global pandemic and the rise of nationalism all over the planet. The United States would of course now be faced with its own version of rising authoritarianism and fear-driven threats from within. You can find multiple quotes online about how our greatest threats were never going to be from without, from the global stage, but with us destroying ourselves from within. I admit I’ve now watched the
Star Wars scene several time where the Republic dies into the Emperor’s control to rounds of thunderous applause. (You can view that here…). I don’t hold to any American exceptionalism, so this is our hour in the crucible. Or years, perhaps. I’m sure it won’t be the last.

I was fully engaged in the news process of yesterday, the day of HR 24, the procedural votes, the final tally vote 232 to impeach, 197 against impeachment. 10 Republican Representatives split from their party to impeach. [If the House is constituted by 435 Representatives, then 6 Representatives didn’t vote at all...or there are outstanding races in which 6 slots have not been filled. I’m not sure which, to be honest.] I did my best to listen to each Representative who was given the floor, impressed by the smooth functioning of statements, minutes given to other voices to speak, the formalized discourse that was both calming and heated, predictable and yet tender too. I could hear the Republican Representatives arguing for a bipartisan commission to study the evidence of the Insurrection, and I could honor their perspectives for that. Rep. Cori Bush from Missouri spoke passionately and compelling in her 30 seconds, lent to her from another Representative’s time. The old-guard Representatives who have been in the House for years if not decades spoke with more pause, but also more predictable nuance, such that my attention would waver. They were saying almost what they were slated to have to say in the political currents they were/are swimming after years in this business of legislating.

Things I’ve learned… This Impeachment process was not a “rush to judgement” at all. There were articles of impeachment drawn up by a Representative from Texas well over a year ago, which the Democrats tabled because they knew the Body would not receive the report and/or they knew they wouldn’t have the votes even in their own party. Then the process in the first Impeachment unfolded successfully, with more evidence and a sense of discerned agency by the Legislative Branch as a whole. (HR 755: High Crimes and Misdemeanors: Abuse of Power and Obstruction of Congress) The Senate’s refusal to convict happened across party lines, with multiple Congressmen and women running for election and politically ‘unable’ to split from Trump if they wanted to keep their jobs. So Donald Trump got impeached the first time, and the Senate failed to convict. This gave Trump a ‘pass’ without any accountability for his actions or rhetoric with respect to the abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. Observations were made from both sides of the aisle that this refusal to convict by the Senate would only embolden Trump. Hard not to see that now, to be honest. 

Democrats and Independents can accuse these Republican Congress-persons as cowardly or unprincipled, but if the tables were turned, we’d see a similar behavior in Democratic Congressmen/women. It’s the nature of the political beast. Very few politicians today seem to be able to integrate principle with money-organized politics anymore. Yet Democrats have been the party ‘out of power’ for quite some time, in Congress. I suspect some balancing is due, while everything appears about to fall completely apart.

Given there are only days left in Trump’s term, was Impeachment worth it? Is it worth diffusing the first days of the Biden Administration while keeping Trump’s chaotic tantrums in the news? I’m wavering here, but I still think, YES, for my sense of things. Impeachment and the Senate Trial to come is necessary and worthwhile. There is a cancer of physical violence forming in our nation that Trump incites and fans until he fears retribution. He thrives on the chaos he causes, irregardless of who it injures. I believe it is in the interest of a healthy Republican Party and the country as a whole for Trump to never be able to hold office again. Regardless of whether he’d win the nomination in 2024 or not. He responds to force and economic pressure, so the (whole) Legislative Branch must bring force to bear and the market/corporations must bring economic pressure to bear. That both are happening concurrently is a positive sign for our democracy as a whole, at least in my view. I think we need to do all we can as a country to assist healthy Republican-ism to begin to lead sanely again--i.e. with a loyalty to the Constitution, not a President/man--to choose democratic-republic institutions that are necessary, even if arguing for 'smaller.' Our Republic cannot survive with the chaotic narcissism it's had for these four years, in blatant disregard of institutions and truth/facts.

But none of this is the main energetic focus for me… Or bevy of foci/focuses… All these are questions and slants driven by political party discourse, important but ultimately distracting for the deeper work of reconsidering citizenship. My questions come into the “why” invitations my friend’s essay invites...with a guess that each of us is driven by so much unconscious and hidden energy we don’t have the ‘containers’ or ‘time’ or even ‘practice’ in addressing…

Why is it that white Christians struggle so very clearly with claiming their part in the sufferings of others? Life is suffering, after all, and we hurt one another all the time. Why do we defend against honoring that fact, dealing with its challenges, and being a part of learning how to heal self and one another? (Hunch: embedded shame and patriarchal abuse of power-over, institutionalized and more)

What does it take for each of us to shift into curiosity instead of blame, wonder instead of fear, practice of trust instead of accusation and refusal? (Hunch: When we feel safe, invited…)

What are Trump supporters and QAnon folks getting in their surrender to conspiracy theories and ‘alternative facts’? It is scratching a deep itch they have, so what is that? Is it a wound, scabbed over? Is it fear? Is it loss of purpose and finding of it again in a parallel universe that buys their attention for cheap? These precious human beings would not be immersed in it all if they weren’t getting something they needed so very desperately… (Hunch: passion, felt sense of patriotic purpose, presuming to be on the side of the Good in a fight with Evil)

Why do so many of us feel impassioned or at least obligated to defend the white men in our lives? I watch this pattern again and again in my classroom, a bit befuddled. White men still have a majority of political power and economic power too. One could even argue that the women in business have had to learn how to do it like a man to succeed. (Speaking as one of those myself, if business is ‘theological education.’) What a majority of white men do not have is emotional flexibility and relational intuition, wisdom. The sensitivities required for deep intimacy are often socialized out of men by the time they hit puberty. But white men need to start learning new well as the women (like me) who can empower them to do so. Hannah Gadsby’s words return to me…”I don’t hate men. I don’t even believe that women are better than men. I believe that women are just as corruptible by power as men... But the story is as [white men] have told it: power belongs to you. And if you can’t handle criticism, take a joke, or deal with your own tension without violence, you have to wonder if you are up to the task of being in charge.” 

Why don’t more of us know the ultimate, blessed freedom at the root of surrender today? Why is that word falsely ‘coded’ in our world as failure, or weakness, victim or loss?

So those are some of my working energies right now...I’m curious about how we face down violence in our communities and nip the authoritarianism in the bud.

How could the American machismo morph into something life-giving, sustainable, and not raging, aggressive, warlike? Until we know the answer to that question, we’re all in danger from enraged, militant Trump supporters who have bullied the current Republican Party into submission… What will it take for white men and the women who enable them to yearn for a better way, for all of us? To learn different questions and explore different skill sets including the emotional elasticity that can prevent war?

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

JESUS...a sign and a prayer

The sun was shining Sunday afternoon, so I took myself for an hour-long, loop walk through the neighborhood. I needed to feel my feet on the ground and the sun on my face (underneath my warm cap, of course). It felt so very foreign, however. I have not walked my loop walk in the neighborhood for quite some time, veering on years. The city finally put a sidewalk on the other side, on the road leading down to a nature preserve nearby. That’s the main reason. But no less true is that I stopped walking my neighborhood when seeing all the Trump signs in 2016 made me nauseous. I found myself walking the neighborhood on Sunday, curious what I might see. A delightful surprise awaited me, but so did a sinking feeling of “here we go again.”

One of the corner houses on the main thoroughfare road I drive regularly has taken down all its Trump regalia. There had been up to five Trump/Pence signs on the lawn, at one point, and a Trump flag pinned to the side of the garage facing the road. Each time I would pass by, I would marvel at the need for multiple signs and large flags blazing. Emphatic loyalty, I understood it to mean, when I was feeling generous. Other terms would come to mind if I was irritable. “Huh,” I thought to myself. The passing of a megalomaniac’s thrall in at least one Ohio family.

The sinking feeling arrived when I then saw the symbolism that remained. A large sign remained in the front yard, close to the house, white letters on a black background: JESUS. Slightly reminiscent of the JESUS 2020 signs I saw at the Riot. The driveway had a black-faced ‘lawn jockey’ in the corner, by the garage. I hadn't seen one of those for decades, though my neighbor across the street when I was growing up had one. Part of why I disliked it so, besides the obvious racist/blackface stereotyping of the figurine today. I glanced across the street and saw the neighbor opposite also had the JESUS sign. I paused in the street for a moment, just taking it all in. My relief that all the Trumpist regalia was gone. My dread that all that frustrated energy devoted to a megalomaniac was now being directed toward this 1st century carpenter whose name is used for more damage than I as a seminary professor can stomach gracefully. I walked on, remembering I was walking to feel my feet on the earth, the sun on my face.

It was good to be out in my neighborhood again, even as it felt so very strange, knowing what I know now. I think I saw one Biden-Harris sign as I started out, but most other detritus from the political election season was gone. It was marvelously quiet, though suburban people were working in their garages, washing their cars in the sunshine, tending to their yards. I found myself sad and curious, in both compassionate and voyeuristic guises. What stories are locked within these homes, with parents and children, men and women, trying to survive economically and physically in a global pandemic? What babies have been born? Have any died? What grandparents have come to stay? Did they live? How many of my neighbors actually voted in this season? Did anyone from my neighborhood go to DC, believing they were there on patriotic holiday…? Did anyone from my neighborhood go, fully armed, with intent to harm Representatives or Senators who know Biden’s election is legitimate? Radicalized conspiracy theorists must  live in my neighborhood too, after all. I actually attend to statistics and find them informative, if critically assessed over time. Who in my neighborhood thinks January 6th was no big deal...still...after these many days…? I walked on, remembering I was walking to feel my feet on the earth, the sun on my face.

A dear friend and colleague offered some really important words tonight, into our small circles here in Dayton, but available to any and all who might receive them. “A Jesus I do not know: Christians and the Capitol Riot.” David Watson serves as Academic Dean at the seminary where I teach, write, serve. He and I differ on many many things, but I know his leadership heart and have appreciated deeply his passion for the historic Christian faith. Folks in his denomination who disagree with him--who have probably been on the receiving end of intellectual discourse and debate--have painted him as a fundamentalist or a sexist, Evangelical man, or worse. I don’t get into the disputes he/they do, so I get to experience him as David, brother in my root tradition of Christianity, colleague, remarkable Dean who can hold the vagaries and tensions of a quite diverse faculty without imploding. I find myself thankful for his words tonight. 

He itemizes the Christian symbols visible in the Capitol riot and refutes their use in the name of Jesus, in a Capitol riot. Things like

  • The Christian flag, an ecumenical white flag with a blue field and a red Latin cross… carried by one rioter on to the floor of the House of Representatives even as guns were drawn to keep them out;
  • At least two flags featuring the icthys, the outline of a fish adopted by early Christians;
  • An American flag altered to read “Make America Godly Again” on its white stripes;
  • A white flag with a green pine tree and the words “An Appeal to Heaven;”
  • And blowing prominently in the foreground as the mob kicked in a Capitol door was a red, white and blue flag that proclaimed, “Jesus is my savior” and “Trump is my President” on either sides of an elongated American flag
  • Additionally, Watson notes, a cross was erected across from the Capitol building.

He then begins the uphill journey of reclamation to name the Jesus he does know, who would not be a part of any such event as happened on January 6th. Jesus — the real Jesus — does not bow at the altar of politics. He does not require the assistance of the kingdoms of this world. He transcends all governments, states, and borders. He cannot be held captive by any political agenda. He is not an ideological wax nose. Jesus — the real Jesus — is Lord of all. And attempts to remake him in our image, no matter how sincere our intentions, are affronts to his lordship. We do not honor him by parading his image in displays of political showmanship. We do not honor his cross by distorting its meaning for political gain, nor do we honor his name by co-opting it in the service of some other cause. Jesus is the cause, and he is too holy, too righteous, too perfect to serve as a spokesman for our this-worldly enterprises. We are not his masters. He is ours, and he abides no rivals.” I think my favorite line is “He is not an ideological wax nose.” But what I love about these words? A nuanced Evangelical position, which never gets good press and I can find wearying for myself, but which is also worth honoring and supporting too. We need all points of view that have not been radicalized, like Sen. Josh Hawley, for instance. These words counter his version of Evangelicalism. We need every perspective willing to come to the table and not insist on taking it over for himself (or herself, but that's less familiar or habitual).

Jesus stands at the center, as for Christians, he does. The “Lord” language retains the patriarchal power-over dynamic within the church, but has theological integrity if one is attempting to speak honestly of a wholly other God become human flesh, dying, rising again. These words also give opportunity to listen for “sincerity of intentions” in the riot and damage inflicted last week. “No matter how sincere our intentions”... Our intentions… A compassionate assumption of “we,” “ours.” So many wounded and grieving today will not follow him here, but it’s an intellectually virtuous thing to do, in a piece like this. Then the closing line of the paragraph: “We are not his masters. He is ours, and he abides no rivals.” Again, scriptural language within a patriarchal worldview, laced with slave/master imagery, which lands so painfully for progressive ears...AND...he moves into the necessary historical critique of cultural Christianity, the Christianity enslaved to wealth, power, status, and more. All that Constantine opened the door to in the 4th century of the Christian community’s life together. The Jesus symbolized and bastardized in the Capitol Riot is not any Jesus he knows. Nor is it a Jesus I know.

I don’t know all that I want to say in this confluence of my Sunday Sabbath walk, and the good, pointed words of a friend proclaiming that all the Christian symbolism at the Capitol riot had nothing to do with the Jesus of the Gospels. I needed those in leadership in my institution to speak out, and they have. I needed to hear his words for myself, simply receiving them as a friend, from a friend. But I'm sad too, easily slipping into hopelessness in these days...

Far right Christian believers won’t hear such a critique without accusing the loss of faith by ‘a liberal.’ Far right Christian believers don’t yet realize that faith that doesn’t question, faith that doesn’t doubt is what needs to be lost for the real Jesus to live and breathe anew. The Jesus whose utter refusal to be the Messiah the zealots wanted him to be, in face of Rome… This Jesus... “though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself…”  So JESUS. A black sign with white letters. In a front yard. It speaks an opening to me, but also a wall and a mountain. My own calling lives here all the time, so of course it would look like this to me…

How do we do the work of breaking open such rigidities, such refusals to consider anew faith, hope, love? How do we invite deepening awareness of the lure of power to compensate for sadness and loss, unresolved grief and anger? When will “faith” not become the blinding salve to the suffering within, attempting to “spiritualize it all away”? My uncle has often spoken of this bind with an image that seems particularly vivid today. “Most Christian Americans have received a religious tradition and expression well-suited to further capitalistic White America, but which innoculates them from the real thing.” We get just enough of the false, socialized, domesticated “tradition”, which prevents us from opening to the Real Thing. Or perhaps the words of G.K. Chesterton: “Christianity is not a failure. It’s just not been tried yet.”

Lots to chew on tonight, but at least walking around my neighborhood is getting easier. Waiting for the other Trump flag I see most days when I drive to be taken down. He’s done the Universe’s bidding to wake us up a bit more. Time to go...He’s gotta go.

Monday, January 11, 2021

What Keeps Him Silent...Until He's Not? What Keeps Her Silent...Until She's Not?

Enjoying an hour-long walk in the sunshine yesterday, I found myself remembering the final scenes in a 1992 movie, A Few Good Men, with Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, Kevin Pollack, Kevin Bacon, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Keifer Sutherland, J.T. Walsh, and of course, Jack Nicholson. Then this morning, I was drawn back to a comedian from ‘down under,’ Hannah Gadsby, whose show Nanette emerged a couple years ago via a good run in local shows in Australia, then globally--or at least into the USA urban scenes--when NetFlix picked it up. Both have the seed of something I’m been feeling, so I’m relying on these words to bear witness to it. My invitation to you is to treat each ‘story’ or ‘orator’ as a part of your own self...feel for yourself the binds felt and broken... Yes, underneath this are our worry-stones of 'free speech,' 'accountability,' and more... I'm interested in the questions of what holds us back from speaking freely and what do we allow to break those barriers?

In one sense, each main orator in focus sits within a frame of reference that predetermines how something public should be said--a court room for Colonel Jessup, a comedy stage for the Hannah Gadsby. Each has its norms, its expectations for those observing and listening to the one speaking. Each orator in focus also winds up transgressing the expectations or norms assumed. Each framework or setting holds the transgression convincingly (in my view), though the transgression also changes the scene, the actual story, the awareness of hidden stories finally coming out. I find myself feeling into how each ‘video-text’ is an instance of someone holding back what s/he “is not supposed to say,” until the barrier breaks...until the words simply have to come out. To hell with the consequences. ...or... Please, let there be no consequences?

Let’s start with A Few Good Men… I won’t recap too much of the whole plot here, but if you haven’t seen it, I encourage you to watch this clip (6:24 mins) of the final scene I mean here. It’s a drama that would never happen in an actual courtroom--too much dramatic license taken for actually believable court proceedings. But it is a beautiful and daring scene of a class-clown, white-father’s-boy lawyer (Tom Cruise) litigating a case in which a high-level witness is called to the courtroom, a base-commander Colonel in the Marines down in Guantanamo (Jack Nicholson). The smart-alecky, entitled JAG Corps lawyer is egging on this white-male-lion of the Marines to say in a courtroom what he’s tired of hiding and really wants to say. Say in a courtroom proceeding for which he displays disdain, for the inconvenience of it all. Some part of Jessup knows that an order he gave was against the regulations in the Armed Forces, but another part of him doesn’t agree with the regulation anyway. He ultimately doesn’t feel bound by it, knowing he can probably get away with disregarding it in his remove, near Cuba.

THIS is what interests me about the clip this morning--a white man hiding something he no longer wants to hide, for the inconvenience of it all, and finally saying what he fuckin’ wants to say. Colonel Jessup had given two contradictory orders--a public one, to not discipline a sub-par soldier, and a private one to a high-level officer, to ‘give a Code Red,’ a physically violent trashing of the soldier “to insure his quality of soldiering would improve.” By the very act of two orders, Jessup knew he was disregarding a national regulation while simultaneously doing what he wanted to do in his military occupation. When the soldier actually died, the cover-up begins, as do the legal processes of accountability from Washington. The drama is then about getting Colonel Jessup to say in a court of law what he knows to be true, is pissed off he has to hide, and thinks was right anyway.

What does it take for white men who are weary of having to hide something about themselves to finally say what they want to say, out loud, in defiance, seduced by the probability that there won’t be consequences?

Then I was reminded of Hannah Gadsby from a couple summers ago, her show Nanette. (If you have NetFlix, that’s how I access it; the trailer can be seen here.) These are not comparable media-events, to be clear, but for me, they share a seed I’m trying to learn more about in our current settings: struggling with how to say aloud what we’re “not supposed to say”, but finding ways to say it anyway.

Gadsby’s voice comes from a social location “on the margins,” she would say. A lesbian comic from Tasmania (the island off of Australia), she begins her show in much the way any audience would expect her to--some gentle gay humor, some pot-shots at homophobia, some ‘coming out’ stories that would be familiar fodder with such a comic. Her artistry is simply stunning as slowly, ever so slowly, she invites her audiences into an experience of what she is going to say, not just the words or thinking about it. The best public speaking does that, after all. It gives you an experience of ‘the point,’ not an intellectual lesson. But ultimately, she creates a comedic-dramatic container in which she finally gets to say aloud what she has needed to say, but had been forced to hide, for decades. What she has to say? More below... My questions, however, are...

What keeps each orator in these two video-texts silent for so long, then, and what finally breaks open the barrier so the speech can come pouring out?

Colonel Jessup holds his tongue within the necessary norms and expectations, until he doesn’t. What seems to hold him is the choreographed dance of a courtroom in which public speech is honored, truth is sought, and justice is hoped to prevail. Jessup has a veneer of civility, even hope for the two Marines to be spared court-martial for their actions. What doesn’t break the barrier, however, is contributing from his own story/role to the hoped-for justice for the two Marines who were given an order and would have been severely punished for disobeying it. They were collateral damage, in his mind. Some assumptions of public discourse, the heightened awareness of the court, his need to ‘color within these lines’ to keep his status...all this kept things in check for him. Until they didn’t…

What finally broke open the barrier was the smark-alecky, entitled young lawyer who had never served any time in the military. In the scene, he provokes Jessup, disdaining him, keeping calm focus on the ‘two orders,’ the evidence that would finally prove Jessup’s orders are always followed, that he had ordered the illegal Code Red. In classic Aaron Sorkin drama, the tension becomes simply too much for Jessup, who is sick and tired of having to hide all the protection he offers, and the means he sees fit with which to offer it. “I would rather you just said thank you,” he sneers at one point. He’s a militant white man who is tired of having to hide who he is, who therefore insists on saying whatever he fuckin wants to say, assured there will be no consequences in the courtroom. 

Except in this Hollywood courtroom (filmed in Culver City, most likely), there were consequences. The whole courtroom hushed as Tom Cruise’s character immediately moves for an action to tend to Colonel Jessup and the ensuing federal prosecution of him. “The witness has rights,” he says, as the scene concludes. Kevin Bacon, playing the prosecuting attorney, sits down in disbelief that Jessup confessed to the crime. The consequences are beyond the film’s ending, but they begin with “the witness has rights.” There is a system in place to adjudicate criminal offenses, and while it is flawed, it is what we have. I think I was drawn to this memory, this clip, because I wanted to see a lawfully abiding courtroom system hold the Hollywood tyrant of Guantanamo Base accountable. And I want to learn more what it takes for white men (and women) to awaken to what is within them, for us to be held accountable.

Gadsby’s artistry moves through a similar pattern of ‘holding the form expected,’ until she doesn’t. What held her speech? What held her speech for decades, before it finally came tumbling out? A social order in which homosexuality was considered a crime (“til 1999,” she quips, “not quite long enough ago”), for one, but also a small-town or at least more easily rural setting in which shame ruled the roost. White male power, cloaked in (largely) Christian garb of patriarchal texts and worldviews. A social system in which there is a Center, and she’s not a part of it, at all. “I haven’t wasted a lot of time looking for how I fit in (in high classical art). I don’t. A lot of naps.” Family and local community relationships kept her silent, for years too. Her mother likened her daughter’s coming out “a little bit lesbian,” as something she didn’t need to know. “What if I had told you I was a murderer?” she recounts her mother saying to her. They laugh and jest within one another about it today, but a mother saying that to a teenage girl? The pain of it... I myself recognize the shame that was then embedded into her from such an early age, and for so long. That silenced me for decades, in my stories without near the violence hers has had.

Gadsby then recounts the multiple instances of abuse and violence that kept her silent for so long. A man sexually abusing her when she was a child. Getting the shit beat out of her by a man at a subway stop when she was 17. Two men raping her when she was 23. “I didn’t tell the authorities,” she says, “nor go to hospital, and I should have. Why didn’t I? Because I thought that was all I was worth. And that is what happens when you soak one child in shame and give permission to another to hate." Various moments in the show she pokes and jabs at this largely unspoken but increasingly visible aggression in white men (and women), unwilling to see or hear other points of view without denial or violence. Listening to her words again today, I'm struck by some of the prophecy-tones within them. "I don't hate men. I don't. I don’t even believe that women are better than men," she says. "I believe that women are just as corruptible by power as men, because you know what fellas, you don’t have a monopoly on the human condition, you arrogant fucks. But the story is as you’ve told it: power belongs to you. And if you can’t handle criticism, take a joke, or deal with your own tension without violence, you have to wonder if you are up to the task of being in charge." And if you can’t handle criticism, take a joke, or deal with your own tension without violence, you have to wonder if you are up to the task of being in charge.

And so what broke the barrier for her to finally speak out? Over ten years on the stand-up comedy scene, learning her artistry. Becoming reflective of the dehumanizing dynamics in comedy today and the increasingly debilitating role she was playing in destroying her own well-being, sense of self. A week of flow-writing in which the show poured out of her onto the page. Maybe it was just one night, I can’t recall precisely, but I know it came out as a whoosh of Truth for her. And then persistently, consistently, performing it, night after night, for well over a year. Therefore an act of courage and impressive resilience, endurance, and today, as I said above, prophetic insight. All of that broke the barrier for her to finally say what she’s not supposed to say in societies where whiteness is assumed.

But we can learn here... Her artistry is never a lack of control or an uncontrolled rage, nor a willingness to use anger to incite a rage. Near the end of the show, she pauses, smiles. “To the men in the room…” she says, pausing some more…“who feel I may have been persecuting you this evening… Well spotted. That’s pretty much what I’ve done there." She names it, minutes after the hour's experience of it.

"But this is theater, fellas, I’ve given you an hour, a taste. I have lived a life. The damage done to me is real and debilitating. I will never flourish…” She teaches, she smiles sadly, she stands before her audience, spent. She returns the room's awareness to the humanity of the very persons she "persecuted" for an hour. She invites her audience to see the violence, the pain, the men who have caused it...which are not far from our public images today, radicalized white men and women enraged in and violating the world stage. She closes her show with a plea and a mirror of what we need. “Through all the pain, he had a tether, a connection to the world, and that, that is the focus of the story we need. Connection.” I won't go into the context here, because the words could stand alone for us, here, now.

"He" needs a tether, whether "he" likes it or not. "He" needs to learn how to handle criticism...handle his own tension without violence. "He" is less and less up to the task of being in charge. It doesn't seem insignificant to me that Jessup is a fictional character (in the movie) and Gadsby is a real, live, flesh and blood human being. This distinction can mean different things, which I'll let you decide for you. For me, it mirrors that (especially white) men have so very few legitimate role models of a healthy masculinity that can collaborate, that can hold tension or shame or failure or whatever and refuse violence, that can surrender or relinquish ego without losing himself. [One that comes to mind, though, is Ode to Joy, a recent film with Martin Freeman and Morena Baccarin. A white man has an illness that causes him to collapse anytime he experiences strong emotion.] Sad, but true. But it takes a courtroom and an entire societal uprising to begin to limit the "free speech of the white man." Whiteness has held its sway with violence for centuries, so of course, it would resort to violence now. Will more of us be willing to no longer deny? Allow the suffering others are experiencing without distancing ourselves from it? Why does it take the ransacking of the Capitol for more of us to notice...? Good questions to ask, for which only you, each of us reading, has his/her/their answer.

And "We"... We need to listen for what keeps each of us silent in the face of suffering--visible and hidden.

We need to learn what will break the barriers for us to come to voice about what we see, all without losing the humanity of the others around us. It is the only way for us to retain our own humanity, you see. This movement is not about 'them' out there, it's about me, myself, holding onto my own humanity. It strikes me today that more and more white people are realizing that the habits of denial and avoidance are getting painful for more and more of us, not just people of color. When will we learn to listen for and allow legitimacy to the sufferings all around us?

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